One hundred years ago today, George Stanley McGovern was born in the small South Dakota town of Avon.
McGovern’s life would carry him far from Avon – first as a child to Calgary and then to Mitchell, then to Dakota Wesleyan University where he met and married Eleanor Stegeberg of Woonsocket, then to Italy during World War II where became a heroic army pilot. He came home, earned his Ph.D. and became a professor of history at DWU.
McGovern was a Democrat and he became interested in politics in the 1950s, probably the low point for the Democratic Party in the history of South Dakota. Republicans held every statewide office and, in 1952, won majorities of 35-0 in the State Senate and 73-2 in the State House. The next year, McGovern signed up as executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party. He began the long, hard task of rebuilding a party infrastructure and, incredibly, by 1956 had succeeded to the extent that he ran for U.S. House and won, defeating incumbent Harold Lovre in the state’s First District (East River).
McGovern spent two terms in the House, then challenged U.S. Senator Karl Mundt, a titan of South Dakota politics, in 1960. McGovern lost by just under 5%, but he built a bond with John F. Kennedy, who was elected President and asked McGovern to be the first director of his “Food for Peace” program. McGovern returned to the state in 1962, winning a U.S. Senate seat by 597 votes against incumbent Joe Bottum, a Republican who had been appointed to complete the term of the late U.S. Senator Francis Case. McGovern was reelected in 1968 against former Governor Archie Gubbrud.
Under McGovern’s leadership, the South Dakota Democratic Party went from its all-time nadir in the 1950s, to one of it’s all-time heights in the 1970s. In 1970, Richard F. Kneip was elected Governor, and Democrats won both U.S. House seats. Two years later, Democrat Jim Abourezk joined McGovern in the U.S. Senate, and Democrats won the secretary of state’s office, the attorney general’s office, and control of both houses of the State Legislature for the first time since the Great Depression.
The 1972 election also brought McGovern his to his personal heights, as he was the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. His campaign, though, was ill-fated; he lost his first running mate, Thomas Eagleton, amidst questions about Eagleton’s mental health, and then lost to incumbent Richard Nixon in a 49-state landslide. McGovern would famously say the next year that “I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way – and last year I sure did.”
McGovern returned to South Dakota and won reelection in 1974, in a competitive contest against Leo Thorsness, who had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But Thorsness’ competitive showing signaled that McGovern had reached his peak. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the Catholic base of the South Dakota Democratic Party began to erode, and McGovern’s national stature worked against him in the increasingly Republican state. It spelled defeat for him in 1980, when he lost his bid for a fourth term to Republican Congressman Jim Abdnor.
That was the end of McGovern’s career in elected office, but not of his public service. He would spend the rest of his life as a goodwill ambassador, partnering with his cross-party friend and fellow war hero, U.S. Senator Bob Dole, in efforts to fight hunger in the United States and around the world. His 1972 campaign inspired a generation of Democrats, most notably Bill and Hillary Clinton.
When he died in 2012, McGovern was remembered, in South Dakota and throughout the nation, for his heroism, his service, and his decency. (Robert F. Kennedy had once called him “the most decent man in the Senate.) As we remember him today on the centennial of his birth, George S. McGovern is undoubtedly among the most notable political figures in South Dakota’s history.
Note: Joe Allen, director of the McGovern Institute at DWU, wrote an excellent remembrance of McGovern, which was published in the Argus Leader. And longtime reporter Tom Lawrence has written many times about McGovern – those articles can be seen here.